Updated: May 29, 2021
At the center of my generation’s critique of a large segment of today’s young men’s style of dress (largely driven by many current mainstream rappers) is the defense: “well what about Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5”? The technology of the internet has made it possible for people to perform Google search images of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 (particularly their On The Strength era of the late 1980’s) and draw comparisons between the style of dress of current rappers and groups like GMF&F5 and The Soul Sonic Force. The problem with this comparison is identical to the problem that exists when people compare the dress codes of Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, Rick James, Ready For The World or any band from the 1970’s and 80’s to today’s mainstream rap acts: lack of context.
The bands and groups of those decades wore costumes that were both a reflection of the times, as well as their often times other worldly subject matters and concepts. I recall Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire reminiscing – “we dressed that way intentionally. Not only was it reflective of how people dressed at the time; but the platform shoes indicated that we were standing tall, the Afros represented the fact that we were raising our consciousness”. One notable difference that I point to is the fact that those previously mentioned groups are wearing men’s clothing. As outlandish as it may look in retrospect to some people, it was men’s clothing. Current rappers have every right to rock dresses and women’s handbags, but it is unfair and inaccurate to hint at any similarities between the acts and their respective time periods.
“Lee’s, Corterfield’s and sneakers – shades on our heads so we can spot freakers” – Shahiem Of The Infinity 4 Mc’s
Grandmaster Flash And The Furious 5 came from the fraternity of Bronx rap groups that were stars in their neighborhoods before rap records were a reality. They dressed in bomber coats, Lee Jeans, terry cloth Kangols and name belts like all youth from the streets did at the time. The success of records like Freedom, It’s Nasty and The Message catapulted the group into the national and international spotlights. This exposure led to the group becoming the opening act for rock groups like The Clash, Billy Idol, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Funk acts such as Rick James, Cameo, The Bar Kays and Parliament Funkadelic. Showmanship was one of the driving forces behind GMF&F5 early on, and Sugar Hill house band percussionist and The Message co writer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher said to me “I didn’t really respect rap until I saw the Furious 5 perform. They were the only rap group that I saw use the entire stage. The others would stand in one spot”.
Furious 5 member Rahiem told The Foundation in 2005 that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5 used to stand on the side of the stage when Cameo performed and take notes to enhance their own stage show. The Cameo show was based on theatre and GMF & F5 would soon adopt not only the stage presence of their Funk, R&B and Rock contemporaries; but their look as well. “If people were going to spend 15.00 to come and be entertained by us, then we felt that we should look different than the audience. We had to look the part of the rock stars that we had become” says Grandmaster Mele Mel in an excited tone when explaining to me why they dressed like they did.
Scorpio formerly Mr. Ness adds “we were opening for the Clash & Billy Idol. The tour bus would stop in a city, and we would buy 1 spike belt. Then 1 turned into 2 and before you knew it we had spike belts on our wrists, chests – all over”. Scorpio also says that when Eddie Murphy was on the brink of super stardom that he used to hang out with the Furious 5. He says that Eddie inquired who made their custom leather suits (Mickey Stevenson) and they hooked them up with the designer. Not long after, Eddie was wearing leather. Again, this is not an attack on the way that the young rap artists dress, but the intent and reason for the dress makes it impossible to place them into the same category. One was done almost out of necessity, while the latter appears to be more shock value in many cases.
Run-DMC is the group that literally ushered in the new school of rap –sonically, stylistically and visually. The irony is that Run-DMC did not do anything that hadn’t been done by the likes of The Cold Crush Brothers (who began to dress flamboyantly in the wake of the Furious 5’s success), The Crash Crew, The Soul Sonic Force, GMF&F5, The Fantastic 5 or any of the artists from the era before rap records which I call “The Original School”. Run-DMC did however put the stripped down bare bones beat dominant original style of rap onto records before those aforementioned groups who Run-DMC were inspired by. A big reason for the Run-DMC appeal was timing. The original school were literally the guinea pigs as far as this new genre of music being released commercially.
“When I saw Run-DMC rockin’ Godfather hats and Adidas, I immediately thought – wow that’s Bronx B-Boy shit” – Ran Dee
Those first generation rap groups were signed by ex R&B and Do Wop artists and managers turned executives and independent record label owners like Sylvia Robinson, Paul Winley, Bobby Robinson and Peter Brown. The (sometimes dated) thinking of these executives coupled with the legal and technological hurdles that existed, prevented these groups from creating, releasing and distributing the kinds of recordings that they made in the parks, night clubs and playgrounds of the 5 Boroughs.
The musical backbone of these recordings was the percussive breakdown portions of various Funk, Soul, Rock,Country,Jazz and Disco recordings. Run-DMC, their producer the late great Larry Smith and their manager (Run’s Brother) the forward thinking Russell Simmons; appeared at just the right time with the same stripped down formula that rap used before it was commercially recorded and distributed, a fresh new cadence and of equal importance – the look that Mc’s, B Boys and young people involved in the Hip Hop subculture had adopted as their dress code many years before. While Mele Mel made a valid and excellent point about the performers not looking like the audience, Run-DMC successfully did the opposite; forever freeing the rap artist from the costume.
Over the years I’ve had some really good conversations with Bronx B Boy, tape collector and Hip Hop aficionado Ran- Dee about early Hip Hop fashion as it relates to different locations in NYC. We have also talked extensively about the origins and influence of Run-DMC’s dress code. These conversations were so interesting to me that I wanted to share them with other lovers of Hip Hop:
JayQuan: Ok we’ve talked about how Russell (Simmons) says that Jam Master Jay dressed in the Godfather hats with sneakers and leather jackets, and that Jay was from the streets,while Run and D were not. Let’s start there.
Ran Dee: Look at the record cover for Uprock by the Rock Steady Crew. Doze drew a picture of Ken Swift with a *Godfather hat, Lee’s, a mock neck and British Walkers. That was the get up from my neighborhood and point of view. That’s how I saw it. Whoever ran with it later on and did something else – I know nothing about Hollis, that’s not my neighborhood.
JQ: What’s your neighborhood?
RD: 182nd street in the East Tremont section. Mapes, Crotona, Belmont , Clinton, Hughes, Prospect, Southern Blvd. Many of the Rock Steady Crew members were from that area. TBB, Starchild La Rock, Rockwell Association. These are all big names in the B boy scene, a lot of Graffiti writers came here, Charlie Chase lived near, The Rockwell Bros, Imperial Bros., The Cold Crush, PS 129, PS118, TDK Crew, Mom & Pops. These are mostly Puerto Rican dudes. We had Brothers that were down with us, but they were with us. We didn’t have outside influence.
JQ: The Rockwell Bros. were affiliated with The Rockwell Association?
RD: Yeah, The Rockwell Bros. were the Dj’s for the Rockwell Association. They would rock with Chase, The Imperial Bros., Grandwizard Theodore, JP from Mapes Crew, Buck 4 from Rock Steady – but he was also a D.J. Buck actually battled JP and PS 129. They had a D.J. battle. But that's how them dudes used to dress. They had name plates, mock necks, name buckles, Lee’s, Adidas with fat laces. Specifically Adidas. People were rockin’ a lotta brands, but Adidas was their shit.
The rumor is, and it’s a rumor because I can’t verify it, but the rumor is that Run DMC saw the Rockwell Brothers somewhere in the Bronx at some point, and then their album came out with Adidas track suits and Adidas with Godfather hats. When we saw that on my block we were like “yo what the fuck”? But we were laughing because they didn’t have laces in their sneakers. We thought that shit was funny. Me being 14 or 15 and being where I'm from, when I saw Run-DMC that was Rockwell to me. Godfather hats were expensive! Hood rat cats weren’t rockin’ no Godfather hats.
JQ: I remember you saying that only certain dudes rocked Godfather hats.
RD: Definitely. You had to have money. No lil' teenagers were wearing those hats. Those hats were like 55.00, and that was a lotta money for a hat back then. I've seen and read the same articles where Russell says that he told them to dress like Jay. If you look before their album dropped, they never dressed like that. Rockwell Bros. were rockin’ Godfather hats with leather blazers, mock necks Le Tigre and Polo shirts. They wore rope chains too. Macho had a huge name plate that you couldn’t miss.
JQ: I remember you telling me a Run-DMC story from when you were in the service.
RD: Yeah, I joined the Army in ‘89. In ’89 im rockin’ Nike Airs, Delta Force, Patrick Ewing and acid washed jeans. Dudes were reading Word Up! Magazine and Rap Pages. They’re still rockin’ Adidas Warm Up’s, Super Stars (shell toes) and Godfather hats. They know that I'm from NY and they are questioning why I don’t dress like that. I told them that all of that was over. It was done. We wore that when we used to break. Run-DMC was talkin’ My Adidas in ’86 – specifically Super Star Adidas. Nobody was touchin’ those. To us that was a funny record in ‘86. You saw it on All the Way To Heaven by Dougie Fresh. On the video the Bally kills the Adidas. Even the cat from Brooklyn…..
JQ: Fresh Gordon?
RD: Right. He made My Fila. At the beginning he is clowning them. “guess what they wear on their feet – Adidas”. We had Spot Bilt already, Troop, the Jordans had just popped out.
JQ: You would sometimes see them (Run-DMC) rock the leather blazer on top of the warm up jacket. Is that something that you saw before them?
RD: No, I never saw that before Run DMC. Just leather blazer with mock necks and Le Tigre shirts. Or Sham shirts.
JQ: Le Tigre buttoned all the way to the top?
RD: Yes! And to clarify, I loved Run DMC’s music. It’s just that when I saw them I immediately questioned why they were rockin’ that style when they weren’t from the Bronx. But like you’ve said in your pieces before – the arrival of Run-DMC ended everything before them. We knew that something brand new was coming. I loved the groups before them, and I loved them too. I remember going to my first rap concert in 86. Now keep in mind I’ve been to jams, basement parties and clubs – Bronx shit. But this was my first concert. I'm expecting someone to come out to Johnny The Fox or some break beat, and they come out and perform their records. It’s cool because I like the records, but that really blew me away and it was obvious that our time was done. I was a teenager but I felt like an old fuck as far as Hip Hop. I couldn’t relate to the rap concert.
JQ: Indeed, the baton had been passed. Thanks for your time bro.
* The Bronx rocked Borsalino Godfather hats, while Run-DMC rocked Fedora hats
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